OXFORD—Way back in 1988, I sat across from Strom Thurmond in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., and listened as he explained his opposition to federal anti-lynching laws and any other encroachment on states' rights during his long career.
"I felt it was dangerous to shift it all to Washington," the then-85-year-old U.S. senator and former Dixiecrat presidential candidate from South Carolina told me. "Lynching was nothing but murder. All states had laws against murder. ... I've never had any feelings against minorities."
Never mind that Thurmond, who died at 101 in 2003, led the Dixiecrat revolt out of the Democratic Party in 1948 and into the Republican Party in the 1960s largely as a reaction against civil rights legislation. Never mind that he was a segregationist superstar during much of the Civil Rights Movement.
Thurmond's disdain for the federal government that provided him a paycheck through much of his life was in classic southern tradition. As far back as the 1830s, another South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun, led the so-called "nullification" effort to allow states to "nullify" federal laws on tariffs and other issues. It took a fellow southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to put the lid on that campaign after sending troops down to Charleston.
The tradition is going strong today. Southern conservatives in Congress deserve much of the blame for the recent federal government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion. In the U.S. House vote to re-open government, 73 southern Republicans voted "No," and only 18 voted "Yes," according to Zack Beauchamp in ThinkProgress. The much-talked-about Tea Party leading the charge against government speaks with a decidedly southern accent.
Yet who have these southern leaders represented through the years? Calhoun and his fellow nullifiers risked civil war in large part to defend planters worried that higher tariffs would cost them British customers. Three decades later, hundreds of thousands of southern farm boys went to war to defend the right of the same planters to own slaves.
When Thurmond and his vice-presidential candidate, Fielding Wright of Mississippi, led the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, a major plank in their platform was opposition to organized labor. Like their predecessors, their hot-button issue may have been race, but they were also determined to protect the interests of the southern business and political elite.
Today, the Tea Party rank and file rants against the federal government, but just try to take their Social Security and Medicare away from them. Thanks to the demonization of not only Uncle Sam but also labor unions by Fox News and its counterparts in Mississippi and elsewhere, the progeny of those same southern farm boys who fought for slavery think they now have to fight for the rights of business owners and corporate CEOs to enrich themselves at the expense of a docile and voiceless workforce.
A South African delegation led by Cedric Gina, president of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, visited the Jackson area earlier this month and was shocked at the uphill fight Nissan workers in Canton have to wage just to exercise their legal right to a union election. "We think this is not supposed to be happening in a so-called First World country, a so-called bastion of democracy," Gina told me in a telephone interview. "To be so fearful, the workers, with no intervention. This is not supposed to be happening."
Workers at the Nissan plant in Canton say they've been subjected to repeated meetings with managers who threaten a plant closure and lost jobs if they opt to join the United Auto Workers. Although well paid by Mississippi's low standards, most of them have gone years without a pay raise and are subjected to arbitrary decisions by management on health and pension benefit changes, work hours and working conditions.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has gone on record saying he supports outside groups that help keep unions out of his state. He's probably happy now that the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has issued a special notice to Nissan workers in Canton warning them of the horrors of joining together and speaking with a united voice.
After a majority of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., indicated their support for a company-and-union-backed, German-style works council at the plant, the same foundation filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging UAW coercion. The UAW says the claims are ridiculous.
A thread that runs through southern history even stronger than race is class. The ruling class in the South doesn't tolerate challenges to its rule well—whether that challenge comes from united black people or from united working people.